Sound Off! Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Welcome back to Sound Off!, a semi-regular column where members of Speculative Chic gather together to chat about the latest BIG THING in entertainment. This time, don your 1960s-inspired military uniform and discuss Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which premiered in the United States on Friday, July 21, 2017.


Sound Off! is meant to be a reaction, but not necessarily a review. After all, while we are all individuals, even mutual love of something (or hate) can come from different places: you may find everything from critique to fangirling to maybe even hate-watching.

Now, join J.L. Gribble, Lane Robins, and Merrin as they talk about Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets! [Note: No spoilers in the beginning, but look out for the warning near the bottom and read further with caution.]

J.L.: The first approximately 5 minutes of this movie were absolutely incredible visual storytelling. It depicted a human race united in its race to the stars, then taking its place among a larger neighborhood of aliens. There’s little dialog, but the viewer gets a great sense of how humanity’s role in the future will be portrayed through something as simple as a handshake. It was even set to one of my favorite David Bowie songs, and I loved every second of it.

I guess the rest of the movie was pretty, too.

(I literally just took a break to scroll through Facebook for a few minutes, because I wanted to remember how amazing Valerian’s opening was before I had to think about the rest of the movie.)

Seriously, the rest of the movie was also visually stunning. The effects were gorgeous and streamlined, and I will always appreciate science-fiction that portrays alien races that are not just humanoid bipeds with some facial prosthetics (sorry, Star Trek).

My husband adores Luc Besson, and unfortunately, I think his excited hype for this movie made me come into it with really high expectations. And as a writer myself, I suppose I wanted the quality of the storytelling to match the gorgeous visuals. After the brilliant opening, we were treated to a scene set on an alien planet. There was no dialog in English, but I was immediately uncomfortable with the ”noble savage” stereotypes being gleefully mined. I was distracted by the tragic climax of the scene, and then again by the fun heist that occurred next with the actual protagonists of the movie. But again, while the heist was fun and featured lots of cool SF gimmicks, I found absolutely no chemistry between the two main characters. Instead, the way Valerian blatantly hit on Laureline, his subordinate partner in rank and experience, was incredibly creepy and uncomfortable. I mentally cheered when she took absolutely none of his crap, but at the same time, why was any of it even necessary? It made their entire evolving “relationship” through the course of the movie feel very real when it was the interactions between two working partners, but gross and heavy-handed at any hint of attempted romance.

Honestly, I could go through the whole movie like this. Every element had something really well-done about it (for example, the AI of their ship was a cool character in itself). But at the same time, some detail would absolutely RUIN it for me (why the hell was the AI giving Valerian and Laureline an info-dump of details about their own home?).

The over-arching story had an important message that unfortunately still feels necessary in this day and age. But as the “noble savage” trope came full circle, I was reminded that the source material for this movie is over 50 years old, and it showed.

It was a shame that the story and the characters could not be updated to match the visual promise of this film.

But it was damn pretty.

Lane: So I went to see Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

I can’t really talk about Valerian without briefly touching on my experience with Luc Besson movies. I am, as all right-thinking people are, a fan of The Fifth Element…now.  The first time I watched it, I was torn between, well, “that was nifty and super cool” and “what the heck did I just watch?” and “oh my god, what was up with Ruby Rhod?” He was just weird and off-putting…i.e., not what I expected of a movie character. Later, my brain caught up with the movie, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. Especially Ruby Rhod.

Then I saw Lucy and hate-watched 95% of the damned movie.  (I need to re-watch it someday when I’m not utterly shrieking at the appalling pseudo-science they’re cramming down my throat with every scene, because there were some kernels of enjoyment in there I think I missed.)

Then Valerian’s trailers showed up, and I was super excited. Then the reviews started coming out, and I was sad, because no one seemed to like it.

You know what? I liked it. Valerian is clunky in places and choppy in others, with some awkward pacing. But it’s always sincere. The visuals are as gorgeous as the trailers make them out to be, and only a few of the characters fell into the uncanny valley. On screen, Valerian and Laureline don’t have the entertainment value as a couple as much as Corbin Dallas and Leeloo, but how many movies do? By the end of the movie, I was rooting for them together. I had my usual bobble with Dane DeHaan as an actor — such a baby-face, such a man’s voice — which always takes a little adapting to. Cara Delevigne was easy to like and watch.

I’ve never read the comic series Valerian was based on, and I did feel that lack of knowledge in some places. I think there were definitely spots that would have made a better sense if I’d had more context. Is that enough to make me hunt out the comics?  Probably not.

In the end, I like the way Luc Besson thinks — I like that his themes are often about love, compassion, the importance of knowledge, and working together.  So while this wasn’t a knock it out of the ballpark movie for me, I’m glad I saw it in the theater. I’ll undoubtedly pick it up on disc at some point in the future. I can see a lot of re-watch value in it.


Merrin: I left the theater with really mixed feelings about this movie. The most I can say about it is that I’m not sorry to have seen it? I am also not sorry to have only spent $4 for the privilege. Maybe my feelings aren’t so mixed.

Look, from the top the movie is incredibly gorgeous. Just sumptuous for the eyes to look at for the better part of two hours: the colors, the effects, the landscapes, space. If there’s any reason I’m happy to have seen this on the big screen, it’s for this.

The rest of it was just a hot mess, from the casting to the script to the heavy-hitting, dragging plot line. None of the rest of it came together quite as well as the visuals did. First, there’s Dane DeHaam as the titular Major Valerian, who has nothing on Harrison Ford for being a dashing, swashbuckling, rule-breaking hero. Somehow, we’re supposed to believe that this kid who looks all of 12 years old has nine years in the military and has somehow fallen upward into a command position over Cara Delevingne’s Sergeant Laureline, who by and large seems much more capable and competent than he is? I did like her, and maybe a different Valerian would have been better.

But I don’t think there would have been anyway to make DeHaan work, and the script certainly didn’t help. From their first scene together, Valerian spends the entire movie creepily pursuing Laureline, who doesn’t seem interested until the very last moment. Their chemistry falls flatter than a deflated beach ball.

I spent a lot of this movie wondering when Rihanna would finally show up, wondering if I’d missed her as one of the Pearls of Mule, but no. In this wandering, twisting tale, she turns up almost at the end, in time to work together with Valerian to save Laureline, but that entire sequence just made me incredibly uncomfortable. You have Rihanna, an actual queen, begging this basic white dude to tell her that her performance was good. Then, and here’s the spoiler: Rihanna’s character dies. And with her dying breath, this immortal goddess tells this basic white dude to love and cherish this white chick. And IDK, y’all. Rihanna deserves so much better than this.

The rest of the film is colonialism and capitalism and some space battles and the message that, once again in a Luc Besson film, only love matters. If you can see it cheaply, see it for the special effects, because those are actually worth the price of the ticket. Just don’t expect too much else.


  • Shara White July 25, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Yeah, this looked pretty, and I’m all for pretty, but the leads looked like freakin’ children. Okay, teens, and I have no trouble with teens…. if it’s supposed to be a YA property/teen movie. This isn’t, so I was left feeling with this incredible sense of disbelief from the trailers alone, just because the leads looked too young for their roles.

    • Lane Robins July 25, 2017 at 9:28 pm has this to say about it. I guess the “romance” angle just didn’t bother me because I felt like we were coming into their relationship midway. And I can definitely see Merrin’s issues with Rihanna’s role and so forth. Plus, Besson tends toward Orcism–the bad guys are always dark and brutish, and the good guys are, well, in this case, they’re electro-energy elves. I’m a bad person though, because I can see all this and still enjoyed it.

      • Shara White July 25, 2017 at 10:29 pm

        That’s okay! Having not seen the movie, I can’t judge you one way or the other. I just don’t like ghat the leads look like high schoolers.

        Thanks for the link. Great article!

  • Carey Ballard July 26, 2017 at 2:27 am

    I saw this movie and totally agree with all of the points. I was just too weirded out to write anything up for this sound off. Normally I like Dane DeHaan’s baby blues, but Valerian’s character was just creepy. The romance was a tired old plot line that gets too much air time and/or credence–boy pursues unwilling girl, girl gives in/realizes she loves boy, happy ending. NO. I kept mentally yelling at Laureline that she didn’t have to take this crap. There is one scene in the film where she literally asks his permission to (further the plot), but she was set up as his true opposite, so that scene would have worked far better if she had displayed a spark of personality and gone on and done what she wanted.

    The spectacle was fantastic; the writing & characters, not so much.


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